Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Horrible Bosses 2

The American Dream is still alive and kicking among Nick (Jason Bateman), Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) and Dale (Charlie Day) despite their less-than-smooth attempts to get one over their superiors in the original Horrible Bosses. In this second outing they quit their jobs to start their own business making and selling showers that release water and soap simultaneously, determined to build and manufacture the materials themselves in old-fashioned entrepreneurial American spirit.

Anyone hoping for a satire on the contemporary US economy, however, will be left disappointed. While the gags in these early scenes involving the trio’s efforts to get their business up and running and their dealings with Christoph Waltz’s ruthless investor relate directly to modern day business, their subsequent decision to embark on another hair-brained criminal revenge scheme  - this time a kidnapping rather than murder - veers the material away from satirical and towards farce.

But anyone hoping for the kind of broad humour that the first film delivered will laugh frequently and leave satisfied. The kidnapping plot may be far from original, but it supplies a basic structure for writer and director Sean Anders to fit plenty of gags and set-ups, and for the leading trio of Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day to bounce off each other.

The chemistry between these three is what pulls the film through some of its weaker material. Anyone who has seen It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia will know about the twitchy, unstable qualities of Charlie Day’s hilarious comic acting, and once again he’s the standout performer in a very talented cast full of alumni from the likes of Arrested Development, Modern Family and Friends.

Despite the phallocentrism of the leads this isn't quite the testosterone-fueled outing of a Judd Apatow movie or an Adam Sandler vehicle, although things do revert to stereotype whenever a character who isn’t a white male is on screen. Some of the material is problematic and resorts to the occasionally sexist/racist lowest common denominator, but for the most part this is a consistently funny sequel. 


Sunday, 16 November 2014


Any film that makes overt parallels to 2001: A Space Odyssey and is publicised by trailers like this ( ) is evidently very ambitious, and in his latest film Interstellar Christopher Nolan reaches or the stars in just about every sense of the word.

The plot is suitably audacious and absurd, and bursting with as many ideas as you’d expect from a Nolan-directed sci-fi. Set in a near-future where civilisation has regressed to the point where mankind can barely produce enough food to survive amidst an increasingly hostile climate (global warming is a never directly mentioned elephant in the room), ex-pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is directed by what seems to be a ghost in his daughter Murph’s (played by Mackenzie Foy as a child and Jessica Chastain as an adult) room towards the location of a secret NASA base planning to repopulate humanity on another planet outside of the solar system via a wormhole.

With such a grandiose premise, it comes as a surprise just how down the earth the film is. In the past Nolan has struggled to make an emotional connection with his characters, but Interstellar is grounded by a central relationship between Cooper and his daughter that is both involving and convincing. Perhaps that’s down to the choice to focus on a father-daughter dynamic rather than that between two lovers, where even actresses as talented as Marion Cotillard, Scarlett Johansson and Maggie Gyllenhaal failed bring to life the partially-conceived love interests in his past films.

It’s just as well Nolan has succeeded in establishing this emotional heart to the film, as individual relationships are crucial to what is perhaps the film’s main conflict; whether to save the people currently living on earth who we already know and love, or to start again with a new colony though frozen embryos. “We must think not as individuals, but as a species” posits the professor in charge of the mission (played by Michael Cane), but the film itself, through highlighting Cooper and Murph’s relationship, does resolutely the opposite. In fact, the only people depicted in Interstellar are those living in a remote cornfield and those in the secret NASA base. There’s no montage or parallel storylines to widen the scope, and we never get a sense of humanity as a whole - or, indeed, as a ‘species’.

In this sense Interstellar differs largely from its most obvious forbearer 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was intentionally cold in its depictions of human characters. But aside from this there are plenty of similarities, from startling jump cuts to mesmerising versions of the famous ‘stargate’ sequence. Nolan is as good as you’d expect as sci-fi visuals, and there’s plenty here to take your breath away, while Hans Zimmer’ well-judged soundtrack switches deftly from tension building to triumphant crescendos without ever, as is sometimes the case with his scores, becoming overbearing.

For all its innovation and emphasis on big philosophical ideas, there’s an unmistakably Hollywood-feel to proceedings, and it comes as no surprise that the ending chooses to both have its cake and eat it. But it’s easy to look past such flaws and acknowledge how great it is that at least one director left in Hollywood is licenced to make big-budget films as ambitious as this. Interstellar may not reach the highs of 2001: A Space Odyssey (will any film ever?), but its very existence shows that the spirit of Kubrick’s classic just about lives on. 


Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Paths of Glory: Remembrance Day

“The paths of glory lead but to the grave”

“Lest we forget” is a phrase commonly quoted this time of year, but what exactly is it we’re supposed to be remembering? The lives of our ancestors who perished in the Great War? The bravery of those who fought for their country?

Paths of Glory is a film that reminds us how the real tragedy of the First World War was how figures of authority allowed so may to die for so little purpose. The plot describes how a general in the French army (General Mireau, played by George Macready) instructs his division to embark on a suicidal mission to take from the Germans a territory called the ‘Anthill’, all in order for him to strengthen his claim for a promotion. After the mission inevitably goes wrong and his men retreat, a kangaroo court is held to put on trial three men singled out for cowardice, with the decent Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) volunteering to defend them.   

The film demonstrates how the real villains of World War One were not the soldiers fighting for the Germans and the Central Powers, but the authority figures on either side who sent the young men to their deaths. Although the rhetoric surrounding Remembrance Day is occasionally in danger of blurring both WW1 and WW2 into the same conflict, it’s important to remember that the Germans who fought in the former war were not Nazis, but instead from a similar society to Britain’s at the time. Neither can the modern virtue of ‘fighting for our freedom’ be retrospectively applied, given how much of the world was under the British Empire.

The conflict in Paths of Glory is that of the internal struggle between the French soldiers and their superiors, rather than between the French soldiers and the German soldiers. Despite being a war movie, little of Paths of Glory actually takes place on the battlefield with both sides shooting at each other. Instead, the focus is on the events leading towards a specific battle, and the subsequent aftermath of when the men refuse to comply with their superiors’ reckless and careless demands. When General Miseau even attempts to fire on his own men, the message of the film becomes clear – the soldiers are in even more danger from their leaders than they are from the opposite side.

None of the soldiers in the film come across as noble and heroic; rather, they’re presented instead as tragic victims, who from the very first scene are shown to be mere sacrifices for the unworthy cause of their general’s promotion. When the horror of war becomes too much  and a soldier is shown breaking down in tears or suffering from shellshock, we’re prompted to condemn those who condemn them for lack of bravery, and instead recognise that such despairing outpourings are the natural response to such tragic circumstances.

The final and most famous scene epitomises how this film, unlike the generals, treats the soldiers as human beings. A montage of close-ups of the soldiers’ faces whilst they take part in a sing-a-long is undeniably moving, and bitterly poignant with the knowledge that most of them will soon be dead. That the tune they hum along to is a German folk song led by German captive is especially telling – these solders feel far more of an affinity to this girl on the enemy side than they do their mansion-residing commanding officers.

Watching this scene and observing the sadness in each soldier’s face is perhaps the best way to remember World War One. It is of course crucial to remember the tragedy of all those lives lost, but to also not legitimise those deaths by saying their cause was worthy and noble.


Wednesday, 5 November 2014

The Babadook

The horror film genre has in recent years come to denote two characteristics – excessive gore and startling jump scares. Both can certainly be frightening and have formed the basis for some good films, but there is far more to being horrified than copious amounts of blood and things that go bump in the night.

The Babadook is a fresh reminder of how the most deeply disturbing horror can come from the dark recesses of people’s minds. In the first half hour it becomes clear that first time director Jennifer Kent is more interested in character than most contemporary horror filmmakers. She withholds scares and takes time to establish the relationship at the heart of the film and flesh them both out as fully-formed characters – Amelia (Essie Davis), a stressed out nurse and mother still haunted by the death of her husband, and her son Samuel (Noah Wieseman), a disturbed six year-old with a fear of monsters.

While the beginning is reminiscent of We Need to Talk About Kevin (another film primarily about a mother-son relationship, a dynamic that is strangely underused in cinema), the discovery on the shelf of a mysterious pop-up storybook called Mr Babadook prompts the film into more frightening psychological horror territory akin to Roman Polanksi’s Repulsion, as Amelia gradually starts to lose grip of reality cooped up in her home.
Perhaps the film The Babadook most resembles though is The Shining. Like that film, much of The Babadook is confined to a claustrophobic four-walled setting, with a mixture of supernatural and psychological forces all provoking characters to commit awful deeds that somewhere deep in their subconscious they desire.

It is to Kent’s great credit that her film is, in some sense, better than Stanley Kubrick’s classic. The Shining is remembered and loved mostly for its deeply unsettling atmosphere and typically extroverted performance from Jack Nicholson, but as a representation of one character descending into psychosis, The Babadook is more convincing. Kubrick was more about cold detachment and form than he was about character, and that hardly distracted from the brilliance of his output, but there is a sense of intimacy and even believability in the psychological realism of The Babadook that exposes just how little the protagonists of The Shining felt like real people.

All the early work to establish character, as well as some brilliantly convincing acting from Essie Davis, help build the foundations for the psychological horror and internal struggle that ensues. So much so that as the film develops we find ourselves relating to and adopting the point of view the kind of person who we’d otherwise only hear about in sensationalised tabloid stories.

Aside from all these fascinating psychological insights, Kent demonstrates some great stylistic touches and unlikely humour. She’s especially brilliant at depicting the disorientating state of mind between being awake and asleep that insomnia causes, and the experience of watching the second half is all the more disconcerting for our lost sense of time.

She still makes use of the horror staples of gore and scare jumps, but underpins them with such intense emotional feeling that they feel more like manifestations of our deepest darkest thoughts than mere cheap thrills, and render most other recent entries into the genre as shallow and superficial. Rounded off by an ending that withholds from offering an easy answer to the questions of mental illnesses raised in a manner that a lesser film would have neatly resolved, The Babadook is one of the most interesting and involving horror films in recent years. 


Tuesday, 4 November 2014

The Importance of M*A*S*H

Helicopters are spotted across the hilltops, their propellers whirr as a bittersweet tune begins, while Khaki-clad onlookers rush towards their landing spot. Within the anxious crowd is a prematurely greying man, striking a separate figure in his blue Hawaiian shirt. The choppers land and occupied stretchers are dragged from their sides. This is M*A*S*H: the most revolutionary television comedy of its day. As a visionary milestone, it is debatably the most important entertainment series of the twentieth century.

The tale of an American field army hospital, set during the height of the Korean War, began life as a Richard Hooker novel, later translated into a smash-hit film starring Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland. As the Vietman conflict raged on with little hope of a meaningful conclusion, audiences went in their droves to laugh through a comedy about another modern military fiasco. The reflection was there for all to see, and the script never shirked from pointing out the enduring pity of war.

It was daring and bold, offering up crude protagonists who failed to meet patriotic American ideals. In 1970, doctors were still hailed as infallible heroes of virtue, and yet, here they were making sexist jokes whilst sticking two fingers up to authority. It was truly shocking stuff for the time. Its uncompromising opening song, moreover, still has the power to offend certain sensibilities to this day. Ah yes, 'Suicide is painless'; a deeply cynical tune to say the least.

By this point the peace truce (still not totally settled) between the war's participants had only been in effect for 17 years. Imagine creating the same dark tone about the Iraq War today. It wouldn't take long for the tabloids to spew their outrage in every direction. Chris Morris knows all about that kind of misguided reaction.

Back in the 1970s critics loved the extreme gallows humour, the recalcitrant political message, and the sardonic wise-cracking. But, to be honest, 44 years after its release, I think this film has aged terribly. Audiences would struggle to identify with the misogyny that drives the main characters to consistently undermine and abuse their female officer. But, a revisionist viewing says that is the whole point - to highlight how the brutality of war barbarises us all.

Despite these ongoing debates, however, M*A*S*H  remains a cultural landmark through its incredible run as a television series, continuing for over 250 episodes across eleven years. This is where the story held a real emotional potency. Its secret weapon was the overpowering likability of its star, Alan Alda. Playing Ben 'Hawkeye' Pierce (Sutherland's character in the movie), Alda possessed an unbelievably tender pathos. Unlike his depiction in the film, Hawkeye proved to be a much more sympathetic medic. He treated all his colleagues fairly and honestly, only disagreeing with his military and political masters when their arrogant incompetency was endangering lives.

It is no exaggeration to say that Alda held the show together, particularly when the inevitable dud script wriggled its way into such a long broadcasting run. Other popular characters include Loretta Swit as Major Margaret Houlihan and Gary Burghoff as Corporal 'Radar' O'Reilly. Together they made for a heck of a team.

Although it exuded a friendlier tone, the television series still had enough bite to inspire peaceful stirrings in all its viewers. To watch M*A*S*H, to laugh at its jokes and to share in its themes is to be almost certainly anti-war.

Remember that guy in the flamboyant shirt, crouching to the turf as the helicopter swooped in? It is Alda in all his glory. Every episode we see him peer over the camera, concern swamping his face, as he inspects his new patient. For all his one-liners and witty dialogue, this is his essence. A good man, an excellent surgeon; these are the things that will always resonate.